Solipsylvania

A fun thought experiment about how life might have evolved differently on another planet (with some philosophical implications for our own planet).

Solipsylvania is the name of a planet, and of the single, immortal, conscious, intelligent, organism that evolved on that planet.  For when life evolved on this planet, it’s cells reproduced, recycled, mutated, adapted, evolved, and specialized – but they remained part of one single organism.  It started out like a growing algal bloom, then developed characteristics like moss or grass, and eventually like a forest.  It developed one massive, interconnected, neural network.  It developed a variety of senses: perception of chemicals in it’s environment, perception of various frequencies of electro-magnetic radiation, sensitivity to vibrations in the atmosphere.  It developed preferences for things that contributed to it’s thriving and growth, and these preferences evolved into feelings of pleasure and joy and a sense of aesthetics: of beauty and wonder.  It developed an awareness of time and the ability to predict, and plan, and imagine, and create.  It developed the ability to manipulate elements in its environment: to create both utilitarian and artistic artifacts.  It began to explore, and analyze, and discover, and understand it’s environment and itself.  It created an internal semantic language of thought, although this was never expressed audibly or visually.  It discovered the patterns of mathematics.  It observed and began to understand chemistry, its own biology, physics, astronomy.  It even learned to modify its own biological structures and further enhanced its own resilience and intelligence.

Now continue the thought experiment:

Could such an evolutionary process be possible?  Could there be life without death?  Evolution without competition?

Could / Would ‘Solip’ (for short) experience conflict?  Probably some competition between its parts, probably some difference of opinion and perspective within its large neural network… but would these all be overcome by the underlying reality – that we’re all part of one body?

How could Solip develop self-awareness?  What would that self-awareness feel like?  Our own sense of self-awareness evolved in the context of being partially independent but intensely interdependent social organisms, surviving in complex relationships of competition and collaboration.  Solip may have discovered that it was somehow separate from the non-living planet on which it lived and from which it drew nutrients, and separate from the vast space around it from which it drew energy, but it is hard to imagine what that self-awareness would be like.

Would Solip discover / encounter / develop an ethical sensitivity or any conception of good and evil?  (Most of our ethical categories would scarcely apply: empathy, love, justice, kindness, cruelty, generosity etc. all seem to require multiplicity of consciousness and scarcity)

Solip would experience pain and suffering: asteroid strikes, droughts, etc. – but if it survived for billions of years, it presumably developed resilience and the ability to heal.

Would Solip’s intelligence and consciousness develop much more rapidly given its immortality and unified memory?  There would be no need to wait for some intelligent organisms to figure out ways to share and store ideas.  On the other hand, maybe the lack of competition would slow the drive toward increasing complexity and intelligence.

Would Solip feel lonely, or even be able to conceive of the idea of other intelligent life?  Would it look for a way to communicate?  Could it conceive of the idea of communication?

Would Solip encounter God?  A sense of a creator with a divine purpose?  I’m sure God would love Solip – would Solip return that love?  How would Solip conceive of love?  Would Solip need to go through some process of fall and redemption?  Of brokenness and healing?  Of alienation and reconciliation?

Would Solip tell itself stories?  Would it develop a narrative framework to give meaning and purpose and direction to its life?

Religion evolved on Earth in the context of our own evolutionary journey that included a lot of competition, suffering, and death; but also a lot of collaboration, healing, and new life.  Jesus, and other spiritually sensitive souls, call us to leave behind separateness, selfishness, tribalism, and fear of death and embrace interdependence, love, harmony, and resurrection.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin proposed that life on earth and humanity’s collective consciousness are evolving toward something like a single planetary organism.  After a long process of diversification, we are becoming increasingly aware that we are deeply interconnected.  Globalization is resulting in networks of trade and communication that increasingly resemble a giant neural network and circulation system.

Our planet may be approaching a golden age in which we eradicate extreme poverty and war OR we may have caused an unstoppable and unprecedented ecological catastrophe and collapse of civilization OR something in between.  It is more critical than ever that we view ourselves as deeply interconnected with all of humanity and with our fragile shared planet.   While there is a growing awareness of our shared humanity there are also alarming backlashes of ‘tribalism’ and xenophobia.  Let’s hope that we find away to come together as a global family and live in sustainable harmony with our planet.

Interesting Links

Pando – the clonal aspen forest in Utah that is probably Earth’s most massive and oldest living organism.

Planetary – a moving documentary about our social, spiritual, ecological need to see ourselves as one with all humanity and our planet.

From Bacteria to Bach by Daniel Dennet – a fascinating perspective on the evolution of life, consciousness, and specifically human consciousness.

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On Being a Conservative, Progressive, Empirical, Pragmatic, Mystical Christian

Conservative – I believe Jesus is the human incarnation of the divine mystery.  I follow him and invite others to follow him.  I am both fearfully and wonderfully made, and terribly broken and fallen.  I know my need for forgiveness, salvation, healing, and grace.  I have a high regard for scripture and for the ancient wisdom of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Progressive – I, together with all humanity, am on a journey of evolving faith and consciousness.  I view progressive revelation as genuine encounter with the divine filtered through contextualized and fallible human consciousness.  I welcome interfaith dialogue and collaboration, and I value the perspectives of other faiths, including atheism.  I am committed to social justice and ecological sustainability.  I am hopeful for ultimate universal reconciliation: in the end, love wins.

Empirical – I value evidence evaluated with the intellectual rigor and perpetually learning perspective of the scientific method.  Science and faith inform each other, keep each other honest, and, in a synthesis of creative tension, provide rich and wonderful insights into the nature of the cosmos.

Pragmatic – I focus on praxis, listening to intuition and common sense, asking what works, asking what makes the most coherent sense of lived experience, and asking what will inspire me to live a life of wisdom, beauty, creativity, empathy, justice, and love.

Mystical – I admit that we don’t really know with absolute certainty.  I embrace mystery, paradox, and wonder.  I view the narrative of faith primarily as mythology: “an archetypal message, expressed in story, that has many layers of meaning beyond the literal” (Richard Rohr, Aug 24, 2017 daily meditation)

Christian – All of the perspectives above are fully compatible with Christian orthodoxy and with faithfully following Jesus.

The Constraints and Contradictions of Collective Consciousness

Sometimes I feel like a prisoner,

desperately clawing at the walls of my own brain,

fettered to the wall and locked in a dungeon of

my own plausibility structures and assumptions,

most of which were imposed on me by

my family, my culture, my community of faith,

my tribe, my cult,

reinforced by myself,

by my need for certainty, affirmation, the need to belong.

 

If I strain at the chains I can glimpse a fragment

of clear blue sky, drifting clouds, soaring birds,

fresh air.

 

Sometimes I break free,

I wriggle out through cracks in the walls, or tunnels I’ve made,

I run, I fly, exploring wonders, worlds unknown

new sensations, new colors, new rhythms,

new ideas.

I’m invigorated, free, alive, intoxicated,

disoriented, afraid,

lost?

 

I return to my cave,

I pretend to wear the shackles,

I smile and nod,

I go through the familiar motions,

surrounded by the people I love,

but ill at ease.

My own skin doesn’t fit any more,

I wear it like an Edgar suit *

I still sneak out and explore,

but the cave comes with me,

it’s in my head,

 

No one is truly free.

We choose, from a limited selection of pre-programmed options.

We change, slightly and slowly.

We believe, from a limited range of comprehensible ideas.

We may express a thin film of originality and creativity,

on a current of thought inherited from others,

in an ocean of mystery.

 

But why all the melodrama?

It’s not so bad.

I’m special.

Everyone is special. *

No one else has exactly the same combination of

influences, experiences, perceptions.

I’m entitled to my point of view.

I’ve seen everything I’ve ever seen through these two eyes,

but it’s as valid a vantage point as any other,

in fact, comparatively quite free and well-travelled.

I’m grateful.

 

I know the walls of my cave are not impregnable.

My shackles are a fiction.

I can get up and stretch,

I can come and go,

and invite others to come along.

And the cave is not so bad…

It’s a shelter and a home.

There are some great friends here,

good values, good truth,

good memories, good times.

 

The walls of our social constructs

are as rigid as we make them.

Some people will try to make them rigid for us,

impose social control, silence questions, squelch authenticity.

Why should we let them?

They are locked in their own constructs.

 

Do whatever you want!

as long as what you want is good, loving, and wise.

Believe whatever you want!

as long as it’s true and inspires you to be good, loving, and wise.

 

I think that’s what Jesus was trying to say.

Follow him.

The truth will set you free.

 

* References to inside family jokes based on movies.  In Men in Black, Edgar is eaten from the inside by an alien who then wears Edgar’s skin like an Edgar suit.  In The Incredibles there’s debate about the cliché “everyone is special”.  I jokingly encourage my kids by telling them that they are special because everyone is special.  (But really – everyone is special)

Emergent Complexity & Information Theory

Check out this article in Wired Magazine: https://www.wired.com/story/new-math-untangles-the-mysterious-nature-of-causality-consciousness

It seems clear to me that complexity emerges:  big bang – basic forces of physics – basic elements – solar systems – complex chemical interactions – origins of life – more complex life – consciousness – human consciousness – civilization – psychological patterns – social patterns – and all the wonder, beauty, imagination, creativity, and love we experience as humans.

Often our scientific theories tend to look for causal explanations for everything by looking ‘downward’ and ‘backward’ – uncovering the basic physical processes underlying our experience and the chain of evolutionary steps that led to our present state.

But then we feel disappointed with these explanations – like our experience isn’t quite as real, or meaningful, or wonderful.  I understand that these downward and backward scientific explanations are quite true: love is an interaction of neurons, which are based on basic interactions of molecules, atoms, and subatomic particles and love is a product of genetic (biological) and memetic (sociological) evolution.  Science can provide great insight through these explanations, and most scientists would say that their explanations don’t make our experience any less real or wonderful.

And yet, I think our intuitive disappointment is revealing something true:  Love cannot be REDUCED to these explanations.  Love (and other aspects of human consciousness and emergent complexity) represent new layers of meaning, reality, and causality that did not exist before.  Yes, they emerged from and are built on lower levels of reality, but not reducibly so.  Real wonder and purpose and significance emerge from the basic building blocks of the universe and this process is ongoing.

New creation is happening all the time!

What the Hell?

A quick post on Hell, summarizing decades of agonizing, reading, reflection, prayer, discussions, deconstructions, and reconstructions:

Eternal conscious torment (ECT) of unbelievers is a psychologically abusive and unbiblical idea.

Psychologically abusive:  The ECT view of hell presents a primitive, barbaric, fear-based view of God.  Even believers who have experienced God’s love, forgiveness, and grace still have a deep fear that disrupts their love of and intimacy with God.  This fear represses all kinds of honest questions and conversations.  Our approach to unbelievers is a bizarre mix of love, compassion, anxiety, condemnation, and pressure to pursue their conversion at all cost.  Unbelievers generally find the whole idea repugnant and repulsive.  I think that most Christians who believe in an ECT view of hell, honestly hate the idea and find it incompatible with the loving God revealed in Jesus.  They repress their doubts and suffer all kinds of psychological torment because they have been taught that they MUST believe because that is what the Bible teaches.

Unbiblical:  I am aware that people can and do assemble a variety of biblical texts and come up with the idea of eternal conscious torment, and I used to be one of them.  But I have come to realize that this conclusion depends on a system of interpretative decisions to combine texts in various ways, to prefer some texts over others, to take certain texts literally, etc.  A different set of interpretive assumptions could lead to a variety of other views of hell.  I would argue that there are better, Christo-centric hermeneutic approaches that lead to hope in universal reconciliation.

“Biblical” should mean discerning what is true from the perspective of the progressive revelation of the Bible as whole, especially in the light of Christ, the incarnate word.  This guides us in discerning which texts are to be read literally and which texts and values take precedence over others. The Bible was written by people, in particular contexts, with particular worldviews.  Even Jesus was a man, in a particular culture, in a particular time in history, with a particular agenda, speaking to a particular audience, whose words were recorded by particular authors, writing to particular audiences – so it takes some discernment to understand the rhetorical intent and the contemporary interpretation of Jesus’ teaching.

For example, is the command to “gouge out your eye” to be taken literally?  What about the story of the rich man in torment in Hades?  Gehenna, another word used by Jesus, was the smoldering garbage dump outside Jerusalem, often used as an image of judgment or hell.  But there are a wide variety of images and concepts concerning hell, and they change among various biblical accounts, and they are clearly influenced by contemporary cultural ideas… so which ones are to be taken literally?

There’s a lot of debate among scholars about the word(s) translated as ‘eternal’ in the New Testament.  Does it refer to time (as we know it) going on forever?  Does it refer to some other type of time entirely?  Does it simply mean ‘in the age to come’?  What concept would it refer to in light of evolving modern scientific views of time?  I don’t know enough about Greek to have a competent opinion linguistically.  But I do know enough about languages, cultures, worldviews, physics, philosophy, and mystery to say that it is clearly very difficult to take a 2,000 year old word for a concept like ‘eternal’ and know for certain what it ‘literally’ refers to.

There are many, many verses that seem to indicate God’s intention to save all people (ex. Rom 11:32, Col 1:20), but we have been taught to subvert these verses because of our literal interpretation of others which seem to support the ECT theory.

I’m not going to get into exegetical discussions of every text.  I’m just giving a few brief examples to say that the Bible contains a wide variety of teachings, images, parables, metaphors, and apocalyptic visions.  It’s not easy to know which ones to take literally and how to piece the various images together into a systematic doctrine of hell, heaven, judgment, the age to come, etc.  It’s also very possible that many of the teachings we think refer to hell are not referring to the the age to come at all.  For more in depth studies there is plenty of scholarly research out there.  I’ve included some links to accessible books on the topic below.  My goal for this post is simply to propose the idea that there are better biblical ways to think about hell.

The Evangelical Universalist  George MacDonald

Her Gates Will Never Be Shut: Hope, Hell, and the New Jerusalem Brad Jersak

A More Christ-like God: A More Beautiful Gospel  Brad Jersak

The Last Word and the Word After That  Brian McLaren

Love Wins  Rob Bell

Wagering with Hope

I’m playing off the idea of ‘Pascal’s Wager’  – which in a very oversimplified form states that we don’t want to risk eternal condemnation so we ought to believe in God, just in case.  Even if we are unsure whether God exists or whether the Christian gospel is true, it is better to lead a morally upright life, forgo some worldly pleasures, and believe in God rather than risk eternal misery.  There is much more depth to Pascal’s theology than this, but I fear a good number of people tend to believe something like this simplistic version of his wager.

I’ll blog more on eschatology later, but for now let me just say that I find the concept of eternal conscious torment of unbelievers abhorrent, unbiblical, psychologically manipulative and harmful, and not a healthy motivation for faith and good behavior.  Believe/Do the right things and enjoy eternal bliss.  Believe/Do the wrong things and suffer eternal misery.  What a terrible, fear-based way to live and persuade others.

I do believe there is value in the belief in a final judgment in the age to come, but the popular, simplistic, dualistic understanding of eternal heaven and hell is not helpful.  We also need to admit the fact that, from an empirical (scientific) human perspective, we have no way of confirming that there is life after death and no way of having certainty about what the age to come would be like.  So belief in any kind of afterlife is a huge leap of faith.  Some scientific materialists might call it superstitious wishful thinking.  I prefer to call it hopeful thinking, and I think there is a subtle difference.

Wishful thinking is the persistent belief in a proposition that is demonstrably not true.  Hopeful thinking could be the choice to believe in a proposition that might or might not be true.  Science cannot find any evidence for life after death, but nor can it disprove the possibility.

From a pragmatic mystical perspective, I would like to propose two paradoxical wagers:  We should live as if there is a life in the age to come AND as if this life is all there is!

What do I mean by this preposterous proposition?  First of all, our life in this present reality and any hope we may have for an afterlife should be integrated, not contradictory.  The way we live now: our hopes, our dreams, our goals, our values should all be consistent with our hopes for all eternity.

This life is the one we are sure exists and it is the one we have been given for now.  So let’s start here and focus on living this life well.  Even if this life is all there is, it is worth living generously, lovingly, justly, compassionately, sustainably.  This life is a shared life: we are social beings, embedded in families and societies, part of a global community, and dependent on an ecosystem for our survival.  Our families and communities and planet will outlive us as individuals.  We are part of cultures and civilizations and a global, multi-millennial human project bigger than ourselves.  Life is short and bittersweet: savor it, feel it, experience it, share it.  Love in the moment.

What, then, is the value in believing in an afterlife?  In this life justice eludes us.  Pure and lasting peace, love, harmony, and joy slip through our grasping fingers.  Any demand for justice and perfection lead only to angry frustration.  All our individual and communal stories are cut short, like books or movies that are missing their final chapters or get cut off in the middle.  I find it better to wager that our stories are part of a bigger story, and that they end well.  I find it better to believe that we are accountable for the way we live and that justice will prevail.  I find it better to believe that, in the end, all will be forgiven, reconciled, healed, and made new.

Ethics 5: Restorative Justice & Hope

I believe that a Christocentric, grace-based, love-based hermeneutic reveals a progression, both in scripture and in the emergence of human consciousness, toward universal empathy and toward restorative justice.  Law and punishment have their place in early stages of spiritual development – but then give way to grace.

Justice and judgment ultimately have little to do with punitive retribution and much more to do with forgiveness, healing, reconciliation, and restoration. This should inform how we pursue justice in this world.  There are rarely clear good guys and bad guys, nor clear lines between victims and perpetrators of evil and injustice.  We are all mixed and all caught in complex webs of systemic evil and cycles of violence.

The quest for justice in this life should always be our goal, but seems always to elude our grasp.  And so we hope for justice in an age to come: a final judgment, final forgiveness, final reconciliation, final healing – NEW CREATION